Dr. Jordan B. Peterson in Portland, Oregon

by Glenn on July 10, 2018

One of the great moments at the Jordan B. Peterson lecture here in Portland, Oregon (June 25, 2018, Keller Auditorium) happened just before the program began. An announcer told the audience that had gathered that “a zero tolerance policy for heckling and disturbances will be strictly enforced.” The audience erupted with applause and cheers. I remember thinking in anticipation of the event that one unruly audience member could ruin this for everyone else. I wasn’t sure who the others were in the audience. Conservative? Liberal? Religious? Irreligious? We were all together on the desire to hear someone speak without worrying about them getting shouted down. We had paid money to hear Dr. Peterson, not protesters, and so it was a relief to know that should someone try to grab attention, it would be dealt with. Security was taken very seriously for this event. Each attendee was searched carefully upon entrance. There was a significant police presence both inside and outside the building.

The event was hosted by Dave Rubin of The Rubin Report. I had never heard of him previously, but I live in a basement, both literally and figuratively. I enjoyed him immensely in this context. His opened the evening and conducted the Q&A with Dr. Peterson at the end. Among whatever other skills he has is a particular genius for relating to crowds. (He is a stand-up comedian, which makes sense. Here is a short clip.) He didn’t appear to have a set speech and his role seemed to be to get the house ready for Dr. Peterson rather than appear for himself. Rubin noted that this was the first time in all his appearances with Dr. Peterson that the house announcer earned applause for the no heckling announcement. He assumed we were pretty tired of protesting. Yes!

I suppose the first take-away from the evening was the assumption that at least the nearly 3,000 Portlanders in attendance were fed up with protests. This is the age of shouting down those you disagree with or don’t think should be heard. It’s wearisome.  It’s not enough to ignore the people whose views you don’t like, you have to denounce and disrupt them. But in the same way that someone’s right to swing their arm ends at my nose, one person’s right to free speech can’t be at the expense of my right not to have to listen. Further, it is my right to choose to listen to someone speak, and someone who interferes with that is violating my rights.

In his opening remarks, Rubin mentioned the protest that was going on outside, across the street, in anticipation of this event. (I noticed it as we approached Keller Auditorium.) This was the first time I recall attending an event that was protested by others. Rubin told us that the protest was by Antifa against violent men. He wondered aloud (to applause and laughter) what that had to do with those of us who were inside Keller Auditorium. What there was to protest remains a mystery to me.

Rubin’s funniest line didn’t elicit the loudest response from the audience. It was subtle and may have caught his audience off guard. He mentioned how his appearance at a previous event led someone to accuse him of being “anti-gay”. He followed that with, “My husband was sure surprised to hear that.” Perhaps tolerance and respect doesn’t quite equate to acceptance and affirmation. Hard to know what happened there.

Rubin didn’t speak very long. I got the sense that his sense was we were ready to listen to the headliner. Rubin’s introduction of Dr. Peterson and his subsequent appearance on stage was greeted by a standing ovation and raucous cheering. The idea of college professor as rock star is really odd.

Here are some highlights from Dr. Peterson’s talk that night:

1. He is trying to understand why so many people are flocking to hear him speak at these public lectures and why the YouTube phenomenon of people like Joe Rogan is exploding. He contends there is a hunger for long-form, intellectual discussions. He believes we are in a Gutenberg-style revolution in communication. For the first time in history, the spoken word has the same reach as the printed word. He talked about television’s problem of “narrow bandwidth,” which he explained is the one- to six-minute opportunity you have to make a point before you have to go to a commercial. This is the sound-bite world where if you can’t make a point quickly, you fail. (A related point, which I’ve heard Dr. Peterson make elsewhere is that the narrow bandwidth requires a certain kind of charisma, which becomes more important than—and perhaps takes away from—what you’re actually saying.) He recounted recent events where he and Sam Harris had public debates that were on the intellectual level of a PhD defense, and where audiences seem quite engaged with it all.

He talked about the theory some have offered that television has made us stupid, but he thinks that is incorrect. To the contrary, television has brought a lot of people along who would have missed out on education. And he notes that HBO and Netflix are demonstrating that people are willing to binge-watch hours and hours of one television program and that those programs are nearing the quality of written literature in terms of the number of characters and the complexity of their stories, requiring a level of sophistication to engage with them. And so people are turning to YouTube to watch long intellectual discussions. His own experience with YouTube was having posted many of his lectures there and discovering one day that there were over one million views. “That’s a lot.” (I think he referred to a million books and then said, without a trace of irony, “That never happens.” As a warning to writers in the room he said, “It will never happen.”) By way of metaphor, he says he is riding a wave but is not the wave.

This technological revolution of long-form intellectual discussions means that where reading and videos both require single-minded attention, a podcast means you can recover time spent doing other things—driving, exercising, washing dishes, etc. The entrance barrier to embracing the technology is low and people can enrich their lives with perhaps as much as two hours of high-level intellectual engagement. For the first time in history, the spoken word has the reach of the written word.

Dr. Peterson referred to his fellow Canadian, Marshall McLuhan, who coined the expression, “the medium is the message.” What I understand of McLuhan’s arguments has come to me via Neil Postman. Something I’ve heard Postman say (or, rather, seen him write) is that new technologies mean there will be winners and losers. The Gutenberg revolution left you behind if you could not read. One of the things I’ve been trying to think through is what, if anything, is the downside to this new revolution. The closest I’ve come to is that you do need access to internet bandwidth, which has a cost. And the equipment you need to listen to anything on the internet also has a cost. So while the content is “free,” the way you listen to it certainly is not. Another possible downside is the fact that the internet is not edited like, say a book or a newspaper. On the up side, you have the free expression of ideas; on the downside is that you have an ocean of content to wade through, much of which is prurient or inane. Taking advantage of this new revolution requires a disciplined search for the ennobling, or else you drop hours watching cute cat videos and the like.

Further, that idea of “free,” while true, is misleading. True, you can upload and listen to a YouTube lecture for free (assuming you have internet access and a viewing platform), but it’s not like Google is not exacting a cost. In addition to fairly unobtrusive ads, the price we are paying is that we are giving over our data to internet companies. The YouTube lectures are not the product; we are the product. Perhaps the price is insignificant compared to the gain.

2. Dr. Peterson referred to the “intellectual dark web,” which was an unfamiliar term. Here is a website. The New York Times offered this report. Of all the people mentioned in these articles, I am most familiar with Dr. Peterson. It is odd for me to think of him as “dark” in any sort of way.

3. Dr. Peterson offered an interesting view of the political landscape. One of Dr. Peterson’s gifts is his ability to frame things well so that there is actually something to talk about and consider. He talked about politics this way: Most of us think that we are very enlightened when we vote. Whether we’re on the left or the right we think we have come to our opinions rationally. Really, though, we tend to select our sources for information, which have points of view we agree with. Dr. Peterson maintains that much of our approach to politics has to do with temperament. On the right you have people who appreciate structure. Republicans are organizers. They know how to build and manage things. They manage well. The problem is that those structures can get old and stale and you can spend resources maintaining structures that shouldn’t be maintained. On the left you have people who know how to create new structures. They have an idea for how things could be different and they create. The problem for these types is that they aren’t very organized and don’t know how to set up and maintain these structures. And, of course, the end of a structure is painful for those who benefit from that structure.The people on the right need to recognize that structures sometimes need to be ended so that new structures can emerge. Dr. Peterson’s point is that both sides need each other. The left has these ideas, but they need people on the right who can put the ideas together. There are visionaries and there are managers.  Dr. Peterson told a great story out of Egyptian history and mythology that stressed the importance of having both perspectives. I wish I had been taking notes. (I’m sure I will find the story in his book, Maps of Meaning, when I get into it.)

4. The political discussion led into a riff on the importance of dialogue. Since Left and Right need each other they need to talk continually with each other. The truth comes out in the talking. The goal is not to win. In fact, it’s bad if either the left or right wins. If the right wins, the inequalities that emerge from hierarchical structures will be ignored. If the left wins, we won’t have any structures and our culture falls. He placed the importance of dialogue in the context of marriage as well. There, again, the goal is not to win. The goal is to talk and discover the truth together. If you win an argument, that means your partner loses, and “who wants to be married to a loser?”

5. It was nearly a throw-away line, but one of his most affecting statements for me was about Donald Trump. He related an experience he had listening to a comedy icon talk about his work in movies and television. He was loving the conversation and then this person turned to talk of Donald Trump, which Peterson found dreadful. He commented that it doesn’t take much “perspicacity” (probably the first time I’ve ever heard this word used out loud) to find something negative to say about Donald Trump. I don’t have the exact words, but it was to the effect that it’s too easy to criticize; that, obviously, Mr. Trump is a deeply flawed person in a self-evident sort of way. It takes no special insight, really, to point this out and doesn’t really accomplish anything to do so. He imagines a number of American voters going into the voting booth in 2016 saying, “Ah, the hell with it” and “voting Trump.” His point is that there are more important and interesting things to talk about.

6. I liked Dr. Peterson’s rule of three when it comes to managing people. When someone does something you don’t like, you give it a pass the first time, you note it the second time, and then the third time you confront. If you confront after the first occurrence, the person can argue their way out of it, denying it happened or making it about you. But if, when you confront, you have three examples, it’s hard for the person to explain away all three.

*  *  *

Dr. Peterson doesn’t bring a product, he offers a discussion, which he says is possible even in the context of a lecture. He doesn’t show up with a prepared talk; he wants every lecture to be different. His goal, even as he does all the talking, is to engage the audience—and he is relentlessly focused on the people in the front few rows. (I’ve heard him say that the lights make it impossible to see any farther back.) He is to academia what jazz is to classical music. Because he can riff it’s a mistake to think he doesn’t know what he’s doing or talking about, in the same way that it’s a mistake to think a jazz musician hasn’t practiced long tones or scales. What appears improvisational, is only possible because of years of dedicated study. I’ve heard people get up in front of people and not say anything. What’s extraordinary is how Dr. Peterson can hold the attention of 3,000 for a couple of hours and, at the end of it, you can point to specific things he said and reflect on them.

A beautifully written account of the evening, including the protests, can be found here.

One comment

[…] Dr Peterson gave an overview of the book at how to: Academy in front of a very friendly audience. He appeared here in Portland on Monday, June 25, 2018 at Keller Auditorium with an equally supportive crowd. It was a delightful evening and I’m happy we were able to […]

by The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon « glennaustin.com on 22 July 2018 at 8:59 am. Reply #

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